The Anatomical Man – details

A page from a Book of Hours printed for Antoine Vérard in Paris in 1506 (213 x 140 mm)  

Move your mouse over the image to see a translation of the French text. (Not guaranteed to be correct; there are some words whose meaning I've not been able to track down.)  

The basic premise of astrology – that happenings in the heavens influence people and events on Earth – may have originated with the ancient Babylonians. It reached mediaeval Europe via the classical world and the Islamic empire, as did mediaeval ideas about science and medicine. All three – science, medicine and astrology – feature on this Book of Hours page.

At the time this leaf was printed, the 'scientific' view of the physical world was that it was made up of four fundamental elements, fire, air, earth and water, represented by the words feu, aie, terre and eaue at the top and bottom of the page. Fire was hot and dry, air hot and moist, water cold and moist and earth cold and dry.

Related to the four elements were the four humours, which describe the dominant characteristics of individual men and women: the fiery-tempered and excitable choleric, the easy-going and optimistic sanguine, the sluggish, apathetic phlegmatic, and the sullen, introspective melancholic. The four pictures at the corners show representatives of the humours, each linked with one of the elements and pictured with an animal that shares his qualities. Clockwise from top left we see: the choleric, apparently stabbing himself under the chin with a dagger, together with a lion and and a background of flames; the sanguine out in the open air hawking, accompanied by a monkey; the downcast melancholic, leaning on a crutch, next to that earth-rooting animal, the pig; and finally the dreamy phlegmatic apparently holding a glass of water, and accompanied by a lamb.

The Anatomical Man himself has been opened up to show his vital organs. Banners around the picture inform the reader about which of the heavenly bodies 'rules' each part of the body.  Sun, moon and five planets are shown each linked to its related part of the anatomy. The jester between the Man's legs wears his fool's cap and carries a mask. He faces towards the moon, reminding the reader of the risks of moon-induced 'lunacy'. (There seems to have been a lot of confusion about which planet influences which organ, with different sources giving contradictory advice.)

Bloodletting was for centuries almost the only treatment a doctor could give, but its timing was important. The text above and below the Anatomical Man indicates the best time for bleeding a patient, according to which of the four temperaments he or she possesses. The moon passes through each of the twelve zodiac constellations in the course of four weeks, visiting three of them each week. So there's one week in every four when it is good to bleed each type.